(From Newsday — 24 August 2003)
SLEEPING WITH THE DEVIL: How Washington Sold Our Soul for Saudi Crude, by Robert Baer. Crown, 226 pp., $24.95
BY JAMES RUPERT, STAFF WRITER
As you pump your next tankful of gas, ask yourself this: Which do you choose as the way for America to keep oil supplies flowing and prices stable?
A) Invade Saudi Arabia and seize the oil fields;
B) Prop up a brutal Saudi dictator willing to kill tens of thousands of people if necessary to keep selling cheap oil to America.
That, according to former CIA officer Robert Baer, may be your choice. Baer spent the 1980s and ’90s handling some of the toughest Middle East assignments for the CIA’s directorate of operations and popped onto bestseller lists and talk shows last year with “See No Evil,” his memoir of the collapse of U.S. counterterrorist intelligence.
Now Baer takes up an American failing that is, if anything, more suicidal: our heroin-like addiction to Saudi oil. It began with Franklin Roosevelt’s 1945 deal with the warrior who created Saudi Arabia, Abdulaziz bin Saud. America would protect the Saud family’s new kingdom in exchange for becoming its chief partner and client in the oil business.
Almost 60 years later, Saudi Arabia supplies 8 to 9 percent of our oil – and, more critically, is the one supplier that can (and will) spin open the spigot whenever we need extra doses. (The Saudis pumped into us an all-time record 2.226 million barrels each day in May to replace the Iraqi supplies shut down by the war.)
With our collective political will anesthetized by addiction, we Americans will not focus on the obvious corruptions of the Sauds and our dealings with them. According to Baer, neither will we see that the dynasty is so rotted that it will soon collapse. That would open the way for the Sauds’ main domestic rivals, the Islamic militants called the Wahhabis, to halt oil exports to what they see as the evil West. Our economy will seize up in a Class-A depression.
This, pretty much, is the theme of Baer’s “Sleeping With the Devil.” It’s a book that should be read by those Americans whose hopes for the future include heating their homes and keeping their jobs.
Plus, his tales from the spy world and his blunt edge can be fun. (Of Saudi society he writes, “If sexual frustration were gold, the Saudis wouldn’t need all that oil.”)
But the book has a problem. Baer is too anti-Saudi (he seems never to have found one he likes) and his arguments are too loose to prove his case that the country is truly teetering at the abyss.
There’s no doubt that the Saud family – about 30,000 people, including 3,000 princes – must now change its survival strategy. To keep the puritan Wahhabis from rising up at home over the rulers’ national larceny, the family for years has basically bought them off with donations for Wahhabi missionizing in Asia and the Middle East. That militancy has been directed largely against the United States and helped lead to 9/11. But now it’s returning to roost, contributing to violent attacks against the Saudi regime (such as the May 12 bombings in Riyadh).
Tracking Islamic militancy during the 1980s and ’90s in Beirut, Damascus, Central Asia and elsewhere, Baer found it fed by the Wahhabi proselytizing, and by a separate movement, the Muslim Brotherhood. Founded in Egypt and expelled from there in 1954, the Brotherhood meshed with Saudi-based Wahhabism to ultimately yield al-Qaida.
Baer found he could not get CIA headquarters to investigate the Muslim Brotherhood, in part because Washington long secretly favored the group for its anti-Communist fervor. Just as Baer is set to reveal who funded the brothers – whoops! The CIA censor steps in to order a section of his book deleted. (The agency has been tougher on this book than the last, blacking out whole chunks.)
Baer has no trouble proving America’s blindness to the Sauds’ corruption and weakness. For starters, few ruling elites manage to hide as much of their workings from public view as the Sauds.
Beyond that, the dependent (that’s us) have difficulty challenging those upon whom they depend. Baer notes that, for America, this problem is multiplied by the eagerness of our mightiest political suits to do lucrative business with the Saudi establishment. Even if the bank transfers are hidden, what is public of the Sauds’ influence-buying in Washington is breathtaking.
Baer describes the Saudi Influence Purchase Program (not a formal title, as far as we know, but it might as well be) as the 401(k) plan for America’s top politicians. Leaving office, they need only join a top-flight consultancy, law firm or investment firm, and Saudis will be at the door with cash.
It takes quite a few pages to review in even cursory fashion the corporate jobs or business deals fueled by Saudi money that have benefited U.S. power brokers (Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld, Colin Powell, Condoleezza Rice, George H.W. Bush, James Baker, Frank Carlucci, Henry Kissinger, George Schulz, George Mitchell, Sam Nunn, et. many al.).
Baer focuses attention (and no little ire) on Saudi Arabia’s ambassador in Washington, Prince Bandar, who “once told an associate that he is careful to look after American government officials when they return to private life. ‘If the reputation then builds that the Saudis take care of friends when they leave office, you’d be surprised how much better friends you have who are just coming into office,'” Bandar is quoted as saying by The Washington Post.
Still, in the end, Baer proves less than he wants to. Repeatedly, he offers a tantalizing anecdote or observation – that Saudi businessman Adnan Khashoggi gave President Richard Nixon a $1-million bribe, or that the royal family has given America a $2.8-billion annual price break on the oil we’ve bought in the past couple of years. He then quickly adds a sober qualification – he’s not sure the Khashoggi story is true; and oil analysts say the alleged price break is no subsidy, but a result of natural, if complex, market mechanisms. But a few pages later, he blithely restates the unproved assertion as fact.
Yes, the Sauds are in trouble. Their corruption has hobbled their economy’s ability to handle a population explosion and the Wahhabis are an enemy within. But Baer ignores a bedrock fact: Saudi society remains close to its Bedouin, tribal conservatism and deeply averse to revolution. It could happen, but a lot of evidence says it won’t be as soon or as catastrophic as Baer suggests. That could give Americans time to heed Baer’s warning – if, in our addiction, we can do so.
Reading Saudi Arabia: If You Like This Book . . .
— Saudi Arabia – arguably the most closed country on Earth – is a tough nut for authors to crack. Britain’s World War I-era adventurers, Gertrude Bell (The Arabian Diaries, 1913-1914) and T.E. Lawrence (Seven Pillars of Wisdom), told truths that remain current. Journalist Sandra Mackey managed four years in the country in the 1970s, reporting secretly as the wife of an American doctor teaching there, in The Saudis: Inside the Desert Kingdom. David Long, author of The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, got his access as a U.S. diplomat and wrote a short, scholarly overview. Israel’s former UN ambassador, Dore Gold, focuses with the eye of an opponent on Saudi Arabia’s support for Islamic militants in Hatred’s Kingdom: How Saudi Arabia Supports the New Global Terrorism.
Copyright © 2003, Newsday, Inc.